Science Mag: "no Indus script"

George Thompson gthomgt at ADELPHIA.NET
Fri Dec 17 22:15:25 EST 2004


Dear List,

I post a message from Steve Farmer, who is not a member of this list, but
who has been receiving messages from list members.  I would recommend to the
list managers that it would be a good idea to subscribe him to the list, so
that list members can discuss his thesis with them.

Best wishes,

George Thompson
.....................

Dear George,

I just noted a thread starting on the old Indology List. I never
bothered to join the List after the old one died in late 2000. But now
I've answered John Huntington's post on it, through him (whom I don't
know). Would you or someone else be willing to post it there? I don't
mind going on the List, but petitioning for permission to be on Lists
isn't my style.

Here's the post.

Dear John,

Unfortunately, I never bothered to join the Indology List after the old
List faded away and real discussion ended on it, back in late 2000 or
early 2001, I guess. So I can't answer your questions on the List. I'm
really busy right now, but I wouldn't mind talking about these issues
on the List, but petitioning first to a committee to join isn't my
style.

So please repost this to the List for me. It is written in haste, but
my points are clear. I'm willing to come onto the List if invited if a
discussion develops.

Tell Signe that Possehl objects because, obviously, we burn him in our
paper! (Look at footnote 5, e.g.)

To your questions:

You write:

> If as seems to be the case Harappan civilization seals were intended a
> marker of possessions, the very diversity of signifier type seems to
> suggest that there were indeed individualized, they would parallel the
> Chinese usage almost exactly.

We don't claim that they were markers of possession, John. We draw much
more elaborate parallels with Near Eastern symbol systems. On the
'markers of possession' idea, see my last comment in this post.

> As for ephemera and the lack there of for most ancient civilizations-
> we know for example that the Shang had brushes, a few have been found,
> and silk, impressions of which have been found on bronze vessels which
> were originally wrapped in the material. Did they write on silk or
> bamboo tallys or other such ephemera, as far as I am aware none has
> come to light yet. But the assumption is that they probably did,
> because their successors did. We simply do not know who the successors
> of the Harappans were so there can be no such assumption.

We deal with 'missing markers' of manuscript production at length. We
investigated the Shang dynasty materials in some depth when researching
that section. (One of my regular collaborators, BTW, is John Henderson,
the specialist on early China.) In any event, rejection of the
"perishable manuscript thesis" is key to our work. The evidence is
strong that they didn't write on perishable materials.

> As for the inscribed shards, it is well known that the Greeks used
> pottery shards to mark with the names of persons to be ostracized from
> society. Also short inscriptions but, of course, in a known alphabet.

Not just the Greeks but everyone in the Mediterranean region. And the
texts were quite long. We deal with this at length in our paper, pp. 22
ff.

> If the symbols are part of a symbolic notations system, then there
> should probably a comparison to a parallel system found on Indic punch
> marked an tribal coins of the symbols on Sanchi stupa two (which, by
> the way, will be on our website in just a few days) or the auspicious
> markings on the Bharhut and Sanchi one Toranas. There are some
> survivals from Harappan symbology on these sites tree chaityas, for
> example.

We've looked at this extensively, although we don't deal with this in
the paper. We don't find any evidence of such survivals -- visual
similarities are subjective and often deceptive -- but we are willing
to discuss this issue further. You are talking about over a
millennium-long gulf here, of course. Punch mark coins do not have any
clear parallels with known Indus signs, or at least not any that aren't
fortuitous.

> It seems to me that Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel have left a great many
> unexplored comparisons in both languages and in symbol systems, I know
> of more that dozen more that have proven to be very challenging

Well, John, there are what -- 6000 or so languages? And several hundred
scripts? A few specifics here would be appreciated. :^) We can't
discuss them all.

> Indeed the line between a symbol system and a written language is
> itself a variety of shades of gray, think of the transition between
> the Chinese pictorial glyph, to the logographic, to the ideographic.
> How could one even imagine where draw a line?

One way to draw a line is to talk about semantic range. Over 50% of the
Indus corpus is made up of 20 signs. This includes signs on at least a
dozen different types of inscriptions -- not just on seals. How wide
would that semantic range be?  Compare this with Shang oracle bones, if
you want. As I often point out, the "Harappan Wisemen" would have a
vocabulary using all known Indus symbols (300-400 by most counts) much
less than Koko the Signing Gorilla or the average 3-year-old child on
this model. Better leave those Harappan Wisemen with their
nonlinguistic signs. :^) (Or embrace Koko: http://www.koko.org/ ) (Koko
reportedly is capable of rebus signing too, but I suspect Penny may
have something to do with that. I live in the Santa Cruz mountains near
Koko. I can hear her beating her chest in the morning, unprompted by
Penny.)

> Ho Ping-ti in his Cradle of the East found the clearly made potter's
> marks on the bottom of 6000 before present Yang Shao culture to be at
> a minimum "proto-writing."

Garbage science, much derided among Sinologists. I follow that field
closely. There have also been similar claims in the last year, also
similarly and rightly derided.

> The Chinese wrote with sharp tools just as the Harappans appear to
> have done. Babylonians wrote with sharp sticks in wet clay. I for one
> will continue to think of the Harappan seals as identifiers of
> belongings and, "this belongs to Charlie," not much in the way of
> literature whether it is said using pictorial glyphs, logographic
> glyphs, ideographic glyphs, or alphabetic glyphs (even with >
> ligatures).

Besides the seals there were over a dozen different types of objects
that carried symbols. The idea that they were all identity markers can
be easily falsified, although it does take a longer discussion. But NB:
the usual claim is that this was a fully literate society, and whatever
you think of the symbols, I think Witzel, Sproat, and Farmer have
killed off that idea once and for all.

Best,
Steve

-----Original Message-----
From: Indology [mailto:INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk]On Behalf Of John
Huntington
Sent: Friday, December 17, 2004 6:20 PM
To: INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk
Subject: Re: Science Mag: "no Indus script"


Dear Colleagues,

I have read with great interest the Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel
article and have a couple of questions.

Why has no one compared the to what is to me a very obvious
comparison, Chinese seals?
Seals range in date from Zhou times onto the present and had the
language not been a forerunner of modern Chinese through a process of
continuous development, would have presented very similar problems to
those of the Harappan seals. All inscriptions are very short, one to
maybe eight characters, extremely varied in content, with some 2000
or so recognized as early as the Shang dynasty.  Shang inscriptions,
mostly on oracle bones, are also short but there are thousands of
them sometimes as many as twenty or so on one ox scapula so we do
have longer texts and more diverse texts(in a sense).  However, these
are an artifact of a fortune telling tradition which as is well known
is unique to China. Bronze inscriptions from the Shang are equally
terse often only one or two characters.

If as seems to be the case Harappan civilization seals were intended
a marker of possessions, the very diversity of signifier type seems
to suggest that there were indeed individualized, they would parallel
the Chinese usage almost exactly.

As for ephemera and the lack there of for most ancient civilizations-
we know for example that the Shang had brushes, a few have been
found, and silk, impressions of which have been found on bronze
vessels which were originally wrapped in the material. Did they write
on silk or bamboo tallys or other such ephemera, as far as I am aware
none has come to light yet. But the assumption is that they probably
did, because their successors did. We simply do not know who the
successors of the Harappans were so there can be no such assumption.

While certain types of ephemera is predictable, detailed usage is not
so without the finding something such a palm-leaf manuscripts one
cannot say they did exist, but not finding them in an area in which
there virtually no ephemera is being found simply is not a case for
"proving" that longer texts did not exist.

As for the inscribed shards, it is well known that the Greeks used
pottery shards to mark with the names of persons to be ostracized
from society. Also short inscriptions but, of course, in a known
alphabet.

If the symbols are part of a symbolic notations system,  then there
should probably a comparison to a parallel system found on Indic
punch marked an tribal coins of the symbols on Sanchi stupa two
(which, by the way, will be on our website in just a few days) or the
auspicious markings on the Bharhut and Sanchi one Toranas.  There are
some survivals from Harappan symbology  on these sites tree chaityas,
for example.

It seems to me that Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel  have left a great
many unexplored comparisons in both languages and in symbol systems,
I know of more that dozen more that have proven to be very
challenging and bear some relationship to the problems that the raise.

Indeed the line between a symbol system and a written language is
itself a variety of shades of gray, think of the transition between
the Chinese pictorial glyph, to the logographic, to the ideographic.
How could one even imagine where draw a line?  Ho Ping-ti in his
Cradle of the East
found the clearly made potter's marks on the bottom of 6000 before
present Yang Shao culture to be at a  minimum "proto-writing." The
Chinese wrote with sharp tools just as the Harappans appear to have
done. Babylonians wrote with sharp sticks in wet clay. I for one will
continue to think of the Harappan seals as identifiers of belongings
and, "this belongs to Charlie," not much in the way of literature
whether it is said using pictorial glyphs, logographic glyphs,
ideographic glyphs, or alphabetic glyphs (even with ligatures).

Best of Holidays to all

John



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